noticed that things have gone a bit screwy the past couple of
Traffic jams materialize out of nowhere. Your luggage makes an unscheduled
stop in Sumatra. The computer eats your dissertation. Your favorite
political party loses control of both houses of Congress.
If you have friends who follow the stars, they may have had a ready
explanation for you: the planet Mercury is in retrograde.
For those not in the know, this is a vagary of planetary alignment that
occurs about three times a year. From one night to the next, Mercury moves
from east to west against the background constellations, reversing its
normal course. Mercury began its latest reverse journey on Oct. 28; it
continue on a wayward path until Nov. 18.
And in astrological circles, it is well established that when Mercury,
winged messenger, flies backward across the heavens, all manner of havoc
unleashed on the earth.
The retrograde periods are time periods when we experience communication,
travel and information breakdowns, Anne Massey, a vice president
International Society for Astrological Research, writes on the Web site
Of course, there will always be those knee-jerk rationalists who insist
in a world with trillions of possible occurrences, it is easy to find
that fit a given hypothesis. But arent they, too, slaves to a sort
superstition, blinded by their faith in randomness?
In an effort to enlighten scoffers and believers alike, The New York Times
set out to statistically determine the terrestrial effects of retrograde
It wasnt easy. Some potentially Mercury-related phenomena are resistant
empirical measurement crossed signals between spouses, botched
orders, busted real-estate deals. Other statistics proved difficult to
out of their keepers. Its just not something that were
able to sort of
respond to, said an I.B.M. spokesman, Jim Larkin, when asked for
network service interruptions during retrograde episodes.
But eventually, a handful of trouble indicators were gleaned and analyzed,
mostly from the transportation sector.
Does Mercury control automobile traffic? It does not, according to data
provided by Transcom, a regional traffic-monitoring agency.
During the retrograde periods in spring 2005 and 2006, Transcom counted
average of 41.9 major events per day accidents, car fires, stoplight
malfunctions and the like on local roads.
During comparable nonretrograde periods, the average was 42.4 per day.
amounts to a decline of 1 percent in traffic headaches during retrograde
Can Mercury slow the trains? Doubtful. Metro-North and New Jersey Transit
statistics from the past three years showed that trains were 0.4 percent
less likely to arrive late when Mercury was in retrograde.
All this did not surprise Stephen J. Daunt, an assistant professor of
astronomy at the University of Tennessee. Mercurys apparent migration,
said, is an optical illusion caused by the difference in the orbit speeds
Mercury and Earth. He compared it to driving on a highway and passing
that is walking in the same direction. The cow appears to be moving
backward. But its not.
From a scientists point of view, he said, Mercury
moving backward in the
sky shouldnt really bother people very much.
But what about the sky itself? Might Mercury unsettle air travel?
Perhaps. According to figures from the federal Bureau of Transportation
Statistics, the percentage of late flights into and out of La Guardia
Airport during the past three summers rose to 24.6 during retrograde periods
from 22.8 during nonretrograde periods.
Whats more, during the past three years, claims of mishandled domestic
baggage rose to 5.44 per 1,000 passengers during months when Mercury spent
more than half the time in retrograde from 5.38 per 1,000 in months when
planet was not in retrograde. That works out to one extra lost bag per
15,000 passengers. If you feel that your bag might be the one, you might
want to rethink your travel plans.
Ms. Massey said in a telephone interview that based on her readings, the
current retrograde episode was particularly likely to result in missing
At the moment I am giving a heads-up for people to be on the lookout
theft, she said. Most of us have to let go of something.
The Police Department was consulted. During the first full week of the
current retrograde period, burglaries were down 20 percent and car thefts
were down 21 percent from the same (nonretrograde) week last year.
Weve got Mercury on the run in New York City, said Paul
J. Browne, the
departments chief spokesman.
Perhaps the most frequently cited Mercury effect of the modern era is
computer crash. I hear that all the time, said David Cook,
a manager at
Tekserve in Chelsea, which says it is the nations biggest independent
servicer of Apple computers. He ran some numbers. The result: a piddling
percent increase in repair requests when Mercury is in retrograde.
Bruce Schaller, an expert on transportation statistics and former research
director at New York City Transit, examined The Timess statistical
and pronounced the influence of Mercury to be conclusively insignificant.
If all this is due to randomness, he said, thats
the result youd
Ms. Massey was unimpressed. I dont think that such short periods
statistically anything, she said. Youve just taken a
couple of years.
She said that for an upcoming book on Mercury, Im going to
be looking at
thousands of years of data to see what kinds of patterns emerge.
Mr. Cook of Tekserve, who described himself as a committed skeptic on
astrology, said he would continue to offer his own pet theory to his
My excuse is, this is Earth, and 5 to 10 percent of everything on
broken, he said, whether its a sewing machine, or a
computer, or a
Not that he has any hard data to back up his claim.
I dont really know, he said. But thats what
Ive heard from other